Republicans are getting pummeled in the messaging wars amid an escalating standoff over Homeland Security funding.
In interviews with The Hill, centrist Republicans are conceding that their party — not the Democrats — will be blamed if the critical agency shuts down at the end of the month.
If that were to happen, it would echo the Ted Cruz-led government shutdown of 2013 and the Newt Gingrich-led shutdowns of the 1990s, all of which turned public opinion against the GOP.
House and Senate Republicans are openly divided over a strategy to fund DHS, a fissure that has produced a round of intraparty fingerpointing at a time when GOP leaders are trying to prove they can govern.
The shutdown threat also comes during a period of heightened security concerns. Recent weeks have been dominated by headlines about killings and terrorist attacks by Islamic State extremists, including one Friday at an Iraqi base where U.S. Marines were training.
Meanwhile, Democrats are presenting a united front, calling for a so-called “clean” DHS funding bill free of any controversial GOP riders targeting President Obama’s executive immigration actions.
“More likely Republicans will be blamed. We control the House and the Senate,” former Homeland Security Chairman Peter King (R-N.Y.) told The Hill on Friday. Americans “know that we caused the last government shutdown, so we have the lasting specter of Ted Cruz hanging over us,” he added.
“Especially in New York, you’re reading about ISIS, about Paris, reading about beheadings and people burned to death, and our response is to shut down Homeland Security?” asked King, who lost more than 100 constituents in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Other Republicans have fresh memories of how the GOP’s popularity plunged in the fall of 2013 after Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) rallied conservatives to shut down the federal government for 16 days in a failed bid to defund Obamacare.
“Everytime the Republicans think our strategy is gonna work out politically and the president will be seen as the one who has stopped the workings of government, it has not worked that well for us and we have been the ones to blame,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) said. “So I’m optimistic in these coming days that we can find a way forward.”
Democrats are relishing the GOP infighting. Leadership aides this week unleashed a barrage of emails and tweets highlighting inconsistent statements from Republicans.
Sen. Charles SchumerCharles SchumerSecond Dem calls for probe into Russian election involvement Schumer calls for Senate probe into Russian interference Senate Dems hold out on spending deal, risking shutdown MORE (D-N.Y.), who normally walks around the Capitol with his cell phone to his ear to avoid reporters, was eager to offer his analysis of the funding fight.
“They’ve dug this hole, they’re deep in the hole, they’re busy pointing fingers at each other and they will have to get out of it,” said Schumer, who leads Senate Democrats’ messaging operation.
The sprawling Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will partially shut down and stop paying thousands of employees on Feb. 28 unless Congress agrees on a way to fund it.
For now, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is standing firm, insisting that the House already passed a DHS funding bill and won’t entertain any other options. But because that House measure also seeks to roll back Obama’s new immigration policies, it hasn’t been able to muster the 60 votes needed to pass the Senate.
GOP leaders seem to have finally settled on a messaging strategy: Blame Senate Democrats, who voted three times to filibuster the House bill. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will try to underscore Democrats’ obstruction when he brings the bill to a vote for a fourth time after lawmakers return from next week’s recess.
“The House has acted. We’ve done our job,” Boehner said in an interview set to air on “Fox News Sunday.” “Senate Democrats are the ones putting us in this precarious position. And it’s up to Senate Democrats to get their act together.”
But that strategy has been undermined by fellow Republicans who already appear to be folding their cards: They’ve joined Democrats in calling on Congress to pass a clean DHS bill.
“Ultimately, we are going to be voting on a clean or cleaner DHS appropriations bill,” Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), who is close to Boehner, told The Hill. “And if we don’t get that opportunity, then we’ll vote on a [continuing resolution], which in my view is certainly less desirable than a DHS appropriations bill, though it’s clearly better than a shutdown.”
Freshman GOP Rep. Carlos Curbelo, who represents a heavily Hispanic district in south Florida, has urged his party to pass a clean funding bill, then separately try to tackle immigration reform and border security. But he said he wasn’t certain which party would be faulted if Congress misses its deadline.
“Surely, the last time the government shut down, polls indicated Republicans took the brunt of the blame,” Curbelo said. “So if you think the past is an indication, then yes, there would be a political price to pay. But most Republicans don’t want to get there.”
Democrats also have the advantage of the bully pulpit as DHS hurtles toward a shutdown. At Stanford University on Friday, Obama said he would sign an executive order that would give DHS more authority to thwart cybersecurity attacks. Democrats almost certainly would try to paint Republicans as weak on cybersecurity — not to mention terrorism — if the agency shuts down.
Democrats also have a simpler message in the argument: Pass a clean funding bill. Compare that to Republicans, who must explain to voters back home that Senate Democrats are at fault even though the GOP won control of both chambers of Congress last fall.
“The process and the machinations of it all — sometimes eyes glaze over, sometimes my own eyes glaze over,” freshman Rep. David Young (R-Iowa), a former longtime Senate staffer, told The Hill. “But the explanation is we’ve done our job in the House and things need to move forward in the Senate.”
Still, Young, who represents a swing district in southwest Iowa, wouldn’t rule out backing a clean bill.
“It may come to that, but let’s see if we can get something out of it first,” he said. “I don’t want to shut down the government, particularly the Department of Homeland Security. Are you serious? These are dangerous times, and we can’t be playing politics with our national security.”